Museums work to release skeletons in Scotland’s closet

The Times 12 September 2023
By Matilda Davies

Indigenous peoples should have their ancestors back to exorcise ‘shocking legacy of empire’

The University of Aberdeen’s repatriation of a Benin bronze to Nigeria marked the beginning of a global movement to return looted artefacts. Now, Scotland’s universities and museums have turned their attention to the skeletons in the closet.

Thousands of human remains are held by Scottish institutions, including more than 850 skulls in the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum and the National Museums of Scotland (NMS). Many reached Scotland by violent means.

Steph Scholten, director of the Hunterian Museum, said: “We have to assume that almost all the remains were dug up by archaeologists and anthropologists over the years, and were not consensual.

Three skulls of Aboriginals from South Australia sit in the Hunterian’s storage, alongside headdresses and belts made from indigenous people’s hair. The NMS holds a necklace made with human trachea, a sharpened shin bone and a four-month old foetus, among other artefacts.

Robyn Campbell, the community representative for the South East First Nations Elders Group, said: “We have been made sick and worried about what happened to our Old People, always knowing our relationship and connection to Country is the foundation of our culture and ways of living.

“Our ways determine the importance of always remaining connected to Country, so our ancestors’ removal to an alien museum environment has been a source of great distress and shame.”

Scotland’s universities are generally in agreement that these ill-gotten remains must be returned. But the process “may take lifetimes at best”, Neil Curtis, the university of Aberdeen’s head of museums and special collections, said.

Steph Scholten said “there is a level of violence involved” in all the human remains in collections

“There’s sometimes been direct violence that has led to human remains in collections, but in all cases, there is a level of violence involved.”

The Hunterian displays numerous anatomical curiosities collected by physician William Hunter, but human remains taken from global indigenous groups — relics of the Victorian preoccupation with so-called “race science” — are not shown publicly.

Curtis explained: “It would be easy for us here to almost make ourselves feel good by contacting either an indigenous group or a nation state and say we want to give you these ancestors back, not knowing what those relationships were and the trauma you could cause by forcing somebody.

“Would you like to be contacted and told, ‘Here’s your great grandfather, take him away’?”

Finding where the remains belong is no easy feat. Documentation is poor, because collectors “weren’t interested, if they were thinking of a racial type, in thinking of that individual person and their life history”, Curtis said.

Universities are reluctant to take samples for DNA testing, which could provide more information about descent, because testing would require further damaging the remains, and they want the rightful owners’ consent to do so.

Despite the arduous process involved, the Australian government praised Scotland for being “actively engaged in the repatriation process for over 30 years”.

A spokesman from the Australian department of infrastructure, transport, regional development, communications and the arts said the government has now centralised processes to facilitate the repatriation of Aboriginal remains.

This work “restores their rightful place as elders, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, brothers and sisters and it acknowledges the unbreakable bond, customary obligations and traditional practices between the living, the land and the dead,” the spokesman added.

But the longer this work goes on, the more damage it does, Scholten said. “The relation to land, the relationship to the people who have come before you, it’s very real, and for them it’s very, very powerful. The fact that the museums in Western Europe hold these parts of them is extremely distressing for them.”

Scholten and Curtis are now both advocating for a central information point in Scotland, or even the UK, where information on all human remains is held.

For indigenous communities searching for their ancestors, it would mean they can come to one place, rather than asking numerous universities and museums what they hold.

Curtis agreed: “For them, they’re probably not very interested in which museum has the remains. Think about if you were somebody wanting ancestral remains back and you had to contact every single museum in Europe.”

National Museums of Scotland and the University of Glasgow have already begun piloting a scheme called Reveal and Connect, to link the institutions with African communities who may be the rightful owners of sacred items and human remains in their collections.

“The main thing we’re doing now is letting it be known that ancestral remains are in the university, and that we are open to discussing and building connections. Then, when we have a good contact, we can pass that contact on to other museums,” a spokesman said.

Scholten and Curtis say the next step is the creation of a national inventory, to exorcise the dark histories of Scotland’s collections once and for all.

“There’s no co-ordinated initiative, yet at least, but it’s also because it’s a small country,” Scholten said. “But with the remnants of ‘race science’, that’s one of the legacies that we must prioritise not only because that is the desire of the originating communities, but also because it’s one of the most enduring and shocking legacies of the empire.”

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